Chapter Twenty-One – No Strings Attached
by Claire Ashgrove
The single word stopped Candy at the door. Her fingers grazed the brass knob. Wisdom ordered her to turn the cold metal and ignore Mitch’s nearly inaudible directive. Her naïve heart, that so desperately wanted him to have a justification she could forgive, instructed her to turn around. She pivoted slowly, pinning him with a mistrustful stare. “Wait?”
He nodded and stood taller. His throat worked visibly as he swallowed, and then the façade cracked and his stare dropped to Major. “You set the rules. This was no strings attached.”
His voice was quiet, but it lashed like the crack of a whip, flaying her already wounded heart into bits. She’d been so foolish. So absolutely stupid to think that Michael Crawford III might have developed feelings for the maid’s daughter. He’d known all along who she was. If he’d cared, if he’d come half as close to love as she had, he’d have spit everything out days ago.
Candy steeled her resolve. This man had hurt her once before. She’d be damned if she'd let him know he could wound the woman who’d moved beyond her subservient social status. He and his family didn’t deserve that kind of power. “You’re right, I set the rules. Now I’m holding to them and leaving.”
She yanked open the door and grabbed her purse. Chill winter wind rushed through the plush fabric of her sweater.
Heavy boot steps followed her quick retreat down the stairs, crunching what remained of the slush and ice on the pave stones. Candy quickened her steps, her focus on the path leading into the woods.
“Candy! Your coat, your things! You can’t just walk out in the middle of winter. Come back and we can talk about this.”
Like hell. Gritting her teeth, she refused to acknowledge the cold and lifted her voice over the brisk breeze. “Burn them. I don’t want to see them again.”
No reminders of Mitch—her favorite cashmere sweater might be in a heap at the foot of his bed, but she could buy another. Keeping memories of him hanging in her closet would make it impossible to erase their connection from her mind. And she would erase him. One way or another.
Taking a deep breath, she ignored Major’s muffled bark and stumbled down the four-wheeler’s path. Jeb could give her a ride. To the airport, to town where she could catch a cab, all the way to Manhattan if necessary. It didn’t matter where he took her, so long as it was far from Mitch—no Michael’s—rustic home.
What in the world was he doing all the way down here anyway?
It didn’t matter. She no longer cared.
As she blinked back tears, she summoned the old, familiar walls around her heart and turned the bend, trudging deeper into the forest. Above the tall pines, a slender plume of smoke wove through the branches, marking the path back to the life she could depend on. The life where everyone remained at a safe distance and no one trespassed across the rock-hard boundaries she set.
So what if that meant Christmas, New Year’s, and all the rest of the holidays would be spent alone? So what if that meant she’d have to go out and buy her own damn dog?
So what if she never knew why Michael had ignored her mother’s death?
She didn’t really need to know. Like before, he’d said everything with his silence.